Investigations: The Bad

But social networking tools are also increasingly used by criminals, and that can make police work more difficult. The example of Philadelphia’s flash mob problem highlights how social media can be used against the public good.

Criminals using small mobile devices can create havoc, Edwards said. “Everything from sending out viruses and accessing protected sites, sending false IDs — all that can be done at the speed of fingertips, where in the past it took a lot more time and effort. And the footprint left behind is so much smaller now,” he said. “In the past it was difficult to get rid of evidence, but it’s extremely easy to get rid of it now, and a lot more difficult to go and uncover it, so our investigative speed has had to increase to match this. The resources that we’ve had to draw on have also expanded dramatically, because the number of sources is so many.”

The biggest problem for local law enforcement has to do with obtaining and retaining social media records, said Indiana’s Cohen. “I see this video of a gang fight or a guy holding a sawed-off shotgun. But how do I download the video so that I can take it into court a year from now, knowing it might go away the minute I refresh my browser?” Cohen said officers or investigators must be able to obtain the records and understand them well enough to establish that the video was uploaded from a house or mobile device owned by the suspect, for example.

Another problem is that even though a criminal may be using Twitter or Facebook in a police department’s jurisdiction, the company operating the platform may be based in another city or even a different country. In the past, a police officer investigating a crime could go to the phone company’s local office or the local bank branch to obtain records. “But if I’m using voice over IP to communicate, there may be no physical presence in a local jurisdiction, or even in the United States,” Cohen said. “Skype for example, is incorporated in Luxembourg. And if somebody is communicating via Facebook, that means, as an Indiana police officer, I need to serve a search warrant on a California company — with no storefront or physical location where I can go.”

Cohen said 80 to 90 percent of U.S. police agencies have fewer than 50 sworn officers, and securing records for a company outside the United States can involve the U.S. State Department, international treaty issues, embassies and other complexities that are very difficult for a small department to navigate.

The vast amount of information on the Internet, along with the organizing power of social media, also can make it easier for criminals to succeed.

“In the past, the knowledge of how to commit a crime — a burglary or how to crack a safe — you had some specialists and some other people who weren’t all that good at it,” Edwards said. Today, criminals can find instructions online — or even be prodded to join an event like a flash mob through a post on a social media platform. “The force multiplier of the number of people who could do these things is dramatic,” he said.

And finally, law enforcement personnel must beware of what they put on their own pages, said Kara Owens of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS). “I talk to the new troopers and tell them not to say where they work. ... If you typed ‘Minneapolis Police’ [into a social media site] and a bunch of police officers showed up with their pages and family photos with information on where they live and so forth, that would be a danger to the officer.” In addition, an officer who posts photos from a GPS-enabled smartphone can unknowingly reveal the location of his or her home or office to a criminal with the right software.

Informing the Public

In August, as Philadelphia officials were coping with flash mobs, the Digital Communities program traveled to that city for a meeting of its Law Enforcement Information Technology Task Force, which was held in conjunction with the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials conference. Among the attendees was Seattle Chief Technology Officer Bill Schrier, a task force member, who showed off a new iPhone application that lets citizens track 911 calls in the city. But that, it turns out, is just the tip of the iceberg. Seattle’s use of social media provides a study of how innovation can be used for the benefit of law enforcement and community.

For instance, the city’s website includes an interactive map showing 911 incident responses, police reports and crime statistics.

“Fire 911 calls have been public since 2002, but the mapping of them happened about three years ago,” Schrier said, adding that the city delays posting police 911 calls for several hours to keep citizens from showing up during dangerous incidents.

The city also reconciles reports from 911 calls with information from the scene before posting the information, since initial reports can vary widely from what officers actually find when they show up. “For example,” he said, “a citizen may call in and say, ‘There’s drug dealing going on on my corner,’ and it turns out there are teenagers hanging around smoking cigarettes and talking loudly — there isn’t actually a drug deal going on. Or a burglar alarm is going off, but what happened is a car crashed into the building and set off the alarm. So it’s actually an injury accident.”

Police reports posted to the site are redacted and usually appear 24 to 48 hours after an incident. “I think that’s unique, I don’t know if there are that many places in the United States that put redacted police reports online for anybody to see,” Schrier said.

Posting police reports online is, in part, a reaction to the changing nature of the news media. Up until a few years ago, city police dealt with a handful of newspapers and television and radio stations. Reporters would monitor radio dispatch activity — or police spokespeople would contact news outlets when a major incident occurred — and pick up paper copies of police reports at the station. But an explosion of neighborhood bloggers and other online media made providing paper reports a burden for city police.

In response, Seattle began burning reports onto DVDs, but that was a lot of trouble too. Putting reports online solved the problem. “That way the media has it and anybody else who’s interested has it too,” said Schrier. “If you need an unredacted version — like if you were in a car accident — then you could come downtown and get the unredacted version.”

The online incident maps also support the city’s 1,200 registered “block-watchers,” who are small groups of people in neighborhoods who work together to keep themselves safe and monitor crime and other goings-on. The 911 mapping is a way to assist them and also encourage them to contribute data to law enforcement.

“They can have data from the last few days about what’s going on in their neighborhood, and they can take appropriate action. So it puts more tools in the hands of citizens,” Schrier said, adding that posting the information also reduces police workload. “Instead of calling 911 for suspicious activities, block-watchers would immediately know if it was suspicious or not because they’ve been sharing information online.”

Behind Seattle’s social media activities is a sophisticated records management system that serves a multitude of purposes.

“The fire 911 calls come directly from the computer-aided dispatch system for fire,” Schrier said. “Typically a call will show up on the website in one to three minutes. So I tell people, ‘You see a fire apparatus go by your house, go to the website, and chances are good that it will already be on the website.’”

That feature required technology. Schrier said the city spent about $250,000 for its information dissemination system, which feeds an internal Police Department database that’s used from crime analysis. It also automatically creates redacted police report data that populates the public website and is used by various city departments. In addition, the system shares police data with the city’s Law Department, which prosecutes cases, and the municipal court.

Community Policing

As Seattle’s experience shows, social media can be an important component of community policing. That’s also true in the relatively small town of Dunwoody, population 47,000, where Chief Grogan said social media is an enhancement to its efforts. “Community policing is manpower-intensive to some degree, because people have meetings and you have to send somebody to them,” he said. “We still do those sorts of things, but you can reach far more people through social media than you could ever reach by attending meetings.”

Seattle’s Whitcomb said that to be truly effective, community policing must go where the public goes. And these days that means social networks. The police department routinely distributes information about crimes under investigation — including pictures and license plate numbers — via social media.

“We make appeals regularly for witnesses to come forward through Twitter and our blog. So broadly, we do enlist social media to help solve cases,” Whitcomb said. “Years ago we would send out news releases, we’d hold press conferences — nowadays we can bypass all that. We just put it on our website, and then reach out on popular social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. We believe we’re hitting a bigger audience.”

Wayne Hanson  | 

Wayne E. Hanson served as a writer and editor with e.Republic from 1989 to 2013, having worked for several business units including Government Technology magazine, the Center for Digital Government, Governing, and Digital Communities. Hanson was a juror from 1999 to 2004 with the Stockholm Challenge and Global Junior Challenge competitions in information technology and education.